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Beyond “Description:” Story-Relevant Aspects of Setting


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Barbara ProbstWhen we think of setting, the first thing that comes to mind is likely to be a panoramic view of a place—a village, forest, castle, planet. When people ask me about my WIP, I tell them that it’s “set” in Iceland, among the glaciers and thermal lagoons. Right away, they have a vision, a way to locate the characters and picture what will happen …

A setting like Iceland can situate a story in a time or culture or geography, evoke limitations and possibilities, create a mood. Yet setting can do so much more than that! When we shrink the scale from landscape to detail and focus on bits of setting—small sensory data—we can discover a whole range of story-relevant and story-enhancing ways that setting can be used.

Here are four of them, though there are certainly others. I’ve included examples from a number of writers, along with some terrific exercises offered by author and writing instructor Diane Zinna.

“Bits of setting” as a reflection of character

Every location is full of details. The movement of a tree branch, the beeping of a truck, the fragrance of curry. As writers, we select the details that we want our readers to attend to—sometimes through the voice of the author and sometimes through a character, who notices or interacts with a specific element of the setting.

In her novel Luz, Debra Thomas has Alma, the protagonist, notice the white calla lilies as she surveys the depressing place where she has arrived and doesn’t want to be. It’s not simply the existence of the lilies, but the fact that Alma notices them, that tells the reader something about Alma’s nature and provides a hint about how she will face what lies ahead.

. . . we climbed higher and reached the stick house with a tin roof that Tito called home. Surrounded by dirt on all sides, it stood a few yards from a dilapidated chicken coop, its chickens running amuck . . . In one far corner, a few white calla lilies stood tall and proud in the midst of this dreary sight.

In one of my own novels, protagonist Susannah returns home from a frustrating day and notices the overgrown zebra grass by the deck. She could have noticed the marigolds, the breeze, the mailbox. But the overgrown foliage catches her eye because it’s emblematic of how she’s been neglecting her home and family—there’s no need to tell (through dialogue or reflection) what has already been shown (through the choice of a detail). Susannah’s guilt is followed by annoyance: “Why is this her job? Why can’t her husband take care of it?” It’s not only what she notices, but also her reaction to what she notices. That reaction signals to the reader that marital conflict lies ahead.

Two different characters will perceive and respond to the same surroundings in different ways. Their differing responses can be a vivid, economical way to illustrate something important about how each character sees the world, setting the reader up for what will follow and making the ensuing struggle, alliance, or betrayal more potent and believable.

Earlier in the book Susannah—who is a musician—notices a change in the sky and remarks to her husband Aaron that the sun has come out from behind the clouds. Aaron, a scientist, corrects her: “It’s the clouds that are moving, not the sun.” Aaron is technically accurate, yet he’s taken the joy out of her impression. Their contrasting formulations about the same sky illustrate their contrasting approaches to life and cue the reader to the dynamic of their relationship.

As an experiment, we can take any setting—whether part of the story or unrelated to it—and imagine how various characters would react.  When Diane Zinna teaches writing, she likes to show her students a video of a New Orleans funeral march. “The video is just packed with sensory details—music, dancers, costumes, restaurants, signage. When I ask my students which details they should choose to include, we discover that the answer often lies in the character we have walking down the street and facing that parade.”

Different details will capture the attention of different characters, evoke different memories, and prompt different actions—conveying a wealth of story-relevant information to the reader that goes far beyond “description.

Echoes and iterations of setting to illustrate change

Diane also urges her students to ask themselves: “What does each thing mean to our character? How can that greater understanding advance the story? The details of the setting start to call out and say, Use me! I can be meaningful in more than one way.”

One way to make additional use of a setting, or a detail of setting, is to return to it later in the story and show it in a different way.  Perhaps the character has a new perception or relationship to the setting, signaling a change in understanding that has already taken place or a shift that happens right there in the scene.  Perhaps she deliberately changes something about the setting (e.g., moves a photograph from its central spot on the mantle to a side-table, symbolizing an inner shift). Perhaps she embraces or rejects or takes charge of her surroundings in a way that she couldn’t have, until now.

A return to the same location, after time has passed, can highlight features that seem entirely different to the protagonist. The lamppost on the corner that signaled hope and the possibility of “illumination” in an early scene—then, in a later scene, the same lamppost on the same corner is a pitiful and ineffective attempt to light a darkness too vast to bear. Or the setting can actually have changed. Disrepair, storm damage, a fence, a new coat of paint, seedlings that have grown—all of these changes in the setting can have rich, story-relevant meaning.

Alternatively, the setting can be shockingly unchanged, reassuring the character or taking her by surprise. The woman who comes home after an encounter that seems, to her, to have altered the world forever—only to see that everything is exactly as it’s always been, the same teapot-shaped clock over the stove, the same row of red-and-white cannisters on the kitchen counter.  The sameness of the setting serves to highlight the differentness of the character’s inner life. The setting hasn’t changed, but the character has.

Mary Helen Sheriff,  for example, places her protagonist Eve at the beach early in the narrative. Eve gazes at the water and longs to surrender to it, to drown and be obliterated. When Eve returns to the same beach, later in the book, she’s different. She’s learning to surf, to ride the waves as they come while remaining afloat.

Jenni Ogden uses the setting of her novel—a small island in the Great Barrier Reef—as a metaphor for the protagonist’s emotional journey.  In the beginning in the story, the image of “the reef edge dropping away into the deep blackness” signals the protagonist’s fear of letting go and falling into the abyss of the unknown. Later, through the proxy of the sea turtle, the protagonist is able to accept and honor that very image:

In her own good time, she [the sea turtle] lifted her head and gazed over the wide lagoon to the edge of the reef and the deep sea beyond, then pushed herself deeper and deeper until she was back in her element and swimming effortlessly into the blue.

Incongruity of setting to enhance conflict and emotional power

Having a crucial scene take place in an unlikely location—incongruous or even dissonant, rather than an obvious or neutral location—can increase its impact. For example: a scene with erotic undertones that takes place in a setting that’s usually associated with innocence, like a children’s playground, can have an effect that the same scene, set in a predictable place like a bar or a moonlit patio, might not.

This incongruity can also be evoked in small ways, too. Mary Sheriff does this through her use of a sensory detail— the smell of burnt gingerbread cookies—that underscores the contrast between what Christmas is “supposed” to be and what it really is for the characters.

Setting is a collection of details. The red-and-white oilcloth. The stone lions. The smell of burnt gingerbread. If the details are real, the setting will be real too.

Diane Zinna shares another writing prompt that she gives to her students:

Write a scene that is set someplace unexpected. For the purposes of this exercise, think of an example that seems outrageous at first, and then fill it with as many glorious details as you can. As you write, build, and commit to telling the story in this place, this “garden,” notice how with each detail the story becomes possible and more real.

Setting as a tool for embodied reading:

What we limit ourselves to thinking about (and depicting) a setting from a panoramic or aerial view, we risk pulling the reader out of direct experience and turning her into an observer. The reader looks at the setting, the same way she might look at a painting: even if she admires it, she feels separate from it, and is likely to rush through or even skip this kind of description in order to get on with the story.

In contrast, description that is small, close, specific, and sensory can pull the reader deep into the scene. She becomes a participant, capable of what I call embodied reading. Body and emotions are engaged, and the story comes alive.

We can create this experience of embodied reading through careful selection of the evocative detail. That is, rather than describing as much as we can about the setting, we focus on a few specific elements, selecting only those with the greatest purpose and power. They can be motifs—sounds or smells or objects that recur throughout the narrative, accumulating power through repetition and variation. Or they can be “once-only” details whose power lies in their incongruity and surprise—something unexpected whose visceral impact makes the reader feel, in her body, what the character feels.

That said, we may not know, especially in our early drafts, which elements will be the strongest and end up earning their way into the final version. For that reason, I’ve found that it’s helpful to get it all down and select later, when I have a better sense of which “bits of setting” will have the most resonance.

It can also be useful, as an exercise, to free-write about the setting from different “focal lengths:”

  • from an aerial view—the widest view of the whole
  • from the middle of the scene, as if you were an actor in a play
  • from close-up, as you were strolling through the scene with a magnifying glass

Then, with these sketches at hand, you can choose among them for story-relevant impact. Different scenes might call for different perspectives.

In short, there’s much more to setting than a background! The savvy writer lets setting do its share of the work to depict character, plot, and emotional arc.

What about you? How do you use “small bits of setting” in your own work? Are there unforgettable examples of setting in novels you’ve loved?

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About Barbara Linn Probst

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES (April 2021) was the recipient of a Kirkus starred review, where it was lauded as "a tour de force." Barbara has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate for out-of-the-box kids and their families. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.

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